Winter Brings The Final Freeze To NFL Teams

It's six minutes to midnight for the NFL season. Some teams are scrambling to make up for early season missteps, while others are looking to lock down their home-field advantage. Host Scott Simon talks sports with Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Time now for sports.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Six minutes to midnight for the NFL season. Some teams scrambling to make up for early season missteps, others looking to lock down home field advantage.

Joined now by Howard Bryant in the studios of WFCR in Amherst. He, of course, of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine.

Good morning, Howard.

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (ESPN): Good morning, Scott. How are you doing?

SIMON: I am fine. Thank you. But, of course, I'm not playing the New England Patriots.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRYANT: Lucky you.

SIMON: Are they just in another dimension at this point in the season?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, right now they're in another dimension, especially because I don't think anybody thought their defense was going to be as good as it was. They're young team, full of rookies. They were supposed to be in a rebuilding year defensively and they - they've matured very, very quickly, and I think that the only fear that you have if you're the Patriots is that you're peaking a little bit early. Nobody wants to be playing their best football in the second week of December. You want to save that to January, to the playoffs. But right now they've got a 10 point differential. They're beating teams by 10 points a game. They're scoring 30 points a game. They're scoring 40 points in the last three games, and Tom Brady is playing as good a quarterback as he's played, and this team is as good right now as even when they were in their undefeated year back in 2007.

SIMON: Well, and of course - but that's, of course, we all know how that Super Bowl wound up, which has got to be the caution about, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRYANT: It didn't turn out so well. Exactly.

SIMON: San Diego Chargers looked awfully good, made the 49ers look like a high school team on Thursday. And when they're good, they look unbeatable. But they're just 8-6.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, they're 8-6, but when we talk about that differential once again - they're scoring 27 and a half points a game and they're only giving up 18. And they should've beaten the Patriots when they met earlier in the season.

And the Chargers are doing what the Chargers always do, which is to have this kind of maddening season where when they're not very good you think they're out and then they make a run, and when they're supposed to be great, they somehow falter at the end. I think that San Diego is a very, very dangerous team.

I think - outside of the Patriots, I think they are the best team in the AFC. And if those two meet up, it's going to be an epic battle, because, as we like to say in sports, these two teams don't like each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well...

Mr. BRYANT: They really don't, actually.

SIMON: Yeah. But we'd have to poll that nowadays to make sure that we have the information.

Mr. BRYANT: Do you know what though, Scott? It's really funny though. When we talk about the rest of it, no one is talking about the champions. The New Orleans Saints are 10-3. They've won...

SIMON: Yup.

Mr. BRYANT: ...six games in a row. And I still think that they might be the best team in football. No one's talking about them, right under that radar, even though they won the Super Bowl.

SIMON: Well, and not a lot of people are talking about the Falcons in that regard, although they've got an 11-2 record.

Mr. BRYANT: Yeah, exactly. And they've never - they haven't lost a game at home this year. And Matt Ryan is a great young quarterback. And I think that the Falcons are that team that you just have to - people are in prove-it-to-me mode with them. Nobody has heard much about them, even though they've been climbing the last few years.

And they're a dangerous team. They play indoors, which is going to help them if they get home field advantage. And once again, this is going to be one of those teams that are going to sneak up on people come playoff time. There is tough -and they've won seven in a row. They've got the longest winning streak in football.

SIMON: Out west it's looking like either St. Louis or Seattle is going to make the playoffs with a losing record. Although you have two teams in the conference - Tampa Bay and Green Bay - who could miss out, despite the fact that they have better records.

Now, I know I know life is unfair, but one of the allures of sports, it's supposed to be a little more fair than life, isn't it?

Mr. BRYANT: Yeah. And believe me, there's going to be a lot of talk if it so turns out that the NFC West comes out with a losing record. It hasn't happened before. You've had teams win divisions with 8-8 records and 9-7 records. But if Seattle or St. Louis comes out of there with a 7-9 record and wins the division and makes the playoffs over a team that won more games than they'd lost, you're going to see some changes.

I personally think it's an aberration. And I think that the way these divisions are set up, the games are more important inside of the division, so why change it. If it happens two, three, four, five years, then maybe you make some changes. But believe me, people are going to be upset if a losing record team not only makes the playoffs but then goes deep into the playoffs. Imagine that.

SIMON: Howard, have the New York Jets come up with a new kick return defense, you know, by getting five guys on the sidelines to line up and just...

Mr. BRYANT: And then sticking a little knee out there as well?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BRYANT: It's going to be a bit of an embarrassing season for the Jets, because they mirror their big talking coach, Rex Ryan. And right now they are, they're one of those teams that - I mean, they're still 9-4, so they could be fine and they can make the playoffs and they can make a big run. But their mouths wrote a really big check that is not being cashed right now over the last few games.

SIMON: Yeah. Howard, very good to talk to you.

Howard Bryant of ESPN - speaking with us from WFCR in Amherst - ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BRYANT: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And a small family note this week. Today's producer, Sarah´┐ŻBeyer Kelly, who has the best known name on this show, becomes Sarah Lucy Oliver in the week ahead. Sarah is marrying a great guy named Jim Oliver. But she's going to keep her stage name here. We're so happy that she's so happy. We send our love to her, Jim, and Tess and Brendon Kelly. Do they know what a Deadhead their mom is, still?

(Soundbite of song "Box of Rain")

THE GRATEFUL DEAD (Rock Band): (Singing) Believe it if you need it or leave it if you dare. And it's just a box of rain or a ribbon for your hair. Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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